1. Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell slain on Mount Gilboa.
Now our attention is drawn back from David and his men to King Saul and his army. Remember that we have just seen David’s activities, and that probably on this very same day and at nearly the same time he was slaughtering the Amalekites, a vastly superior force, and winning back his captives without a single loss to him or his men. Saul and the Israelite army are also facing a vastly superior force. Saul, however, has lost the favor of the LORD through his long unfaithfulness and stubborn disobedience. Therefore, the LORD does not help him, and it is the Philistines who are victorious in Saul’s war. The men of Israel flee from the Philistine army, and those who do not flee fall down slain in Mount Gilboa, the place where the Philistines were camped. This is what typically happens to a greatly outnumbered force, when the LORD is not on the side of the smaller force!
2. Then the Philistines followed hard after Saul and his sons. And the Philistines killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, Saul’s sons.
Saul and his sons also flee, but the Philistines are in close pursuit. One by one his three sons are overtaken and killed. Abinadab is a name not familiar to us, but he is probably the same son called Jishui in chapter 14, Saul’s second son after Jonathan. Most tragically of all, Jonathan too, David’s best friend and a true follower of Jehovah, is overtaken and dies. Though he had sympathized with David, he had thrown in his lot with Saul because he was his father. Therefore on the day when if he had been with David he would have been victorious, instead he was with Saul and was destroyed. What a waste!
3. The battle became fierce against Saul. The archers hit him, and he was severely wounded by the archers.
It seems that Saul is cornered and forced to re-engage, and the battle does not go any better for him this time. The archers score a hit on him, and Saul is severely wounded by the archers.
4. Then Saul said to his armorbearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised men come and thrust me through and abuse me.”
But his armorbearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword and fell on it.
Saul knows now that he can no longer escape, nor can he fight back when the Philistines overtake him. He is afraid of what mockery and torture the Philistines might subject him to if they catch him, so he asks his armorbearer to draw his sword and thrust him through with it to slay him. Remember that a man’s armorbearer was usually one of his closest friends, and a man he trusted above all others. Yet now Saul’s armorbearer is too afraid to lift his hand to destroy his king, so Saul’s final orders are not carried out, a last disgrace upon this disgraceful king. Saul therefore gathers his courage to do the deed himself. He takes a sword and falls on it, killing himself. Thus this wicked man is repaid for his wickedness.
5. And when his armorbearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword, and died with him.
When Saul’s armorbearer sees that his lord is dead, he too decides to commit suicide. He falls on his own sword and dies with his king.
6. So Saul, his three sons, his armorbearer, and all his men died together that same day.
Thus we have the summary: Saul, his three sons, his armorbearer, and all his men die together on the same day. At the time of his death, Saul was around 70 years old, and Jonathan his son was about 53. (David would have been around 30 at this same time.) This was punishment upon him for his wickedness. Contrast this with David’s similar war on this day, when not a single soldier of David died! Not a single captive family member of any of them was lost! And yet for Saul and his men, this same day resulted in total destruction. Thus we have most clearly for us illustrated the result of faithfulness, and the result of rebellion.
7. And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, and those who were on the other side of the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook the cities and fled; and the Philistines came and dwelt in them.
One reality of war is that the army of a nation is really what is protecting the common people of the land from enemy invaders. When the Israelite army was defeated, that meant the towns and villages around the battlefield were left defenseless. Warfare at that time was largely about defeating an army in order to earn the privilege of robbing and looting the towns around the battlefield. Therefore, when the Israelites in the cities on the other side of the valley around the battlefield, as well as those east of the Jordan River, hear of this loss, of their army’s flight from the battlefield, and of the death of their king and his sons, they know that the Philistine army will be headed their way, determined to loot and pillage. Therefore in fear they flee from their homes and cities. The Philistines come and find these cities deserted. They do not loot the cities, therefore, but instead simply move into these deserted cities and start living there themselves. This was another possible goal of war: to expand your territory. Of course, not every soldier in the Philistine army moved into these cities, but some of them did, and that was enough to mean that these were occupied by the Philistines, and their original inhabitants could not return. That is how the situation will stand, though God will soon enough have another and better king to return to the issue.
8. So it happened the next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa.
The Philistines are looting the bodies the next day. Dead bodies were a valuable source of loot, for a soldier will be carrying expensive armor and weapons, maybe some coins, and perhaps a few valuable personal possessions. Thus these Philistines are looting from these dead bodies, and while they are doing so they find Saul and his three sons among the dead lying fallen on Mount Gilboa.
9. And they cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and sent word throughout the land of the Philistines, to proclaim it in the temple of their idols and among the people.
The Philistines cut off Saul’s head as a trophy, strip off his armor, and send word into their land so their people may celebrate their victory over this king, their enemy. This word is proclaimed in the houses of their idols and among their people. We can see why it was proclaimed among the people, but why in the idol temples? This was because of the way they viewed war and warfare, and especially how they viewed their gods.
Each nation would have its gods, and they would be fighting a nation that also had its gods. These gods were specific to your own nation, and the idea probably grew at first out of ancestor worship. Of course your deified ancestors would be on your side and no others, and so even once this worship was separated from ancestors, you would still view your gods as being personal to you. A victory for one’s own nation meant a victory for one’s gods over the gods of the other nation. Thus they always took a victory in war as a victory for their gods. These gods were also like our modern mascots in a way. You would be loyal to them, you would cheer for them, and you would try to stir yourself up to victory with them as your inspiration, just like our mascots. What a childish way to look at things! They had no real concept of the true God Who is Lord of all.
10. Then they put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan.
The Philistines put Saul’s armor in the house of Ashtoreth. This name means “Star,” and she was a Philistine goddess. Again, they are giving credit to this goddess of theirs for this victory, and giving her this armor as a token of their regard to her for supposedly helping them win the war. They fasten his headless body as a second trophy to the wall of Beth Shan. Beth Shan means “House of Rest,” and was a town in Manasseh west of Jordan. Though it was a town in Manasseh, it appears that it had yet remained largely Canaanite down to this time. As such, it is quite possible that the Canaanite inhabitants were friendly to the Philistines, and just as glad to have them as their new neighbors rather than the Israelites who had now been driven out. Of course, it is also possible that this was one of the towns the Philistines had newly taken over.
We read of the disposal of these two “trophies,” but we do not in Samuel read of the fate of the third trophy, the head of Saul. From I Chronicles 10:10, we would learn that that trophy was hung up in the temple of Dagon.
10. Then they put his armor in the temple of their gods, and fastened his head in the temple of Dagon.
11. Now when the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul,
The inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead, a town in Manasseh, hear of what has happened to Saul. Jabesh-Gilead means “Dry Rocky Region,” and was a city east of the Jordan in the region near the towns where the Philistines had taken over, and near Beth Shan. It was a larger city, and so perhaps better able to defend itself, or else it was just far enough from the battlefield not to have to worry about the Philistine raiders.
12. all the valiant men arose and traveled all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth Shan; and they came to Jabesh and burned them there.
Apparently Jabesh Gilead was well supplied with valiant men, perhaps another reason they had not abandoned their city to the Philistines. When these men of Jabesh-Gilead hear of the disgrace done to the body of their dead king and his sons, they get up and travel all night to Beth Shan, venturing right into enemy territory among the invading army. They remove the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall. Then they bring them back to Jabesh and burn them so that no more indignities can be done to them. This was their way of honoring their dead king, and removing his body and those of his sons from the possibility of further disgrace.
13. Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.
The fire was not made hot enough to consume their bones. Really it is hard to get a fire to consume a body entirely, so this is not surprising. Thus they take their bones which remained and buried them under the well-known tamarisk tree that was at Jabesh. This was a large and significant tree there. Then the inhabitants fast for them seven days as a way of commemorating their funeral.
So we read the sad conclusion of the life and reign of Saul, a king whose reign began very well, yet who turned from the LORD and so only experienced disaster in the end! What a sad contrast his fall is to the glorious victory of David at the same time, the man he chased away and hounded, yet whom God blessed and favored! It would have been far better for Saul if he had kept David with him, or better yet, kept the commandment of the LORD and retained His favor. Yet he fell away, and sadly in his destruction he took his sons, even his Godly son Jonathan, down to destruction with him. Thank God that he was followed by David, a more worthy man, on the throne! We will read about his career in the next book of Samuel.